When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris


I know there are a lot of loyal David Sedaris fans out there, so I’m hesitant to say anything negative about the guy.  But I read his latest book of humorous essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and was decidedly underwhelmed.  It’s possible that my expectations were unrealistic.  It was, after all, the first of his books that I have read, and knowing that all of his books have been New York Times Bestsellers and that he contributes regularly to NPR’s This American Life, I was expecting a lot.

That’s not to say I hated the book — because I absolutely didn’t.  I even laughed (well, it was more like a quick, unexpected exhalation) when the author was describing his unusual Japanese hair salon experience.  And I enjoyed the format:  short essays that don’t require large chunks of time to commit to reading, making it a perfect book to have in the car, in the bathroom or on the bedside table, if you’re like me and tend to fall asleep quickly while reading in bed.  But as far as the humor genre goes (to which I admit I have been greatly underexposed) I preferred the only other collection of humorous essays I’ve ever read, Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff, which I highly recommend, whether you are a Sedaris fan or not.

I think my biggest issue with When You Are Engulfed in Flames was how self-deprecating Sedaris is.  I know, I know, that’s his modus operandi, the thing that makes him so entertaining and endearing.  But I can only listen to (or read about) someone beating themself up over and over before it becomes distracting and I feel a nagging obligation to step in and reassure them that they’re not as much of a hypocrite as they think they are, that they really are worthy of being in a long-term relationship with a great person, and that no, their butt isn’t too flat, it’s really just fine.  The exception to the trend was the final essay in the book, which was also my favorite (probably no coincidence) in which Sedaris documents his experiences while quitting smoking.  I guess he just couldn’t be too hard on himself after such an accomplishment.

To end on a good note, I do think David Sedaris is an excellent writer.  I would imagine that being funny while writing would be a unique challenge since so much of humor is expressed in verbal and physical nuances.  Sedaris manages to express wit and sarcasm without being too cerebral.  The jokes are easy to get, it’ll just depend on your personal preferences whether you like them or not.

Published in: on January 1, 2009 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,